Stop Branding Your Library!!

Ok, so I’m totally going to admit when I’m wrong but in my defense it wasn’t my fault. I got my MLIS at San Jose State when all they could talk about is branding and how important it is to brand your libraries and I went into library school after managing a heavily branded retail chain. In fact I was so enamored with the idea of branding libraries that I wrote all of these posts about it.

But then, I had my interview at the library system I currently work at and I spent exactly 5 minutes in a room with Martin Gomez and realized everything I thought about branding libraries was absolute crap. While I could never even dream to express what he said to me as eloquently as he did in those five minutes, and it’s taken me years to come to terms and process what he said to me, I am going to write about why I now think I was so wrong.

1) What is the goal with branding?
The first thing I started to think about after that interview was, well… What problem are we trying to fix with branding? Basically, I think that branding allows marketing the available services, programs, and materials, at your libraries to be easier and centralized and that’s really about it. If that’s a library’s goal then that’s fine, I get it. Branding is all about marketing. But if someone thinks it’s going to do much beyond that, then I’m wondering what other problems they think it’s going to solve. Please comment below on this one as I’d like to hear from you.

2) How many people go to multiple libraries in the system?
This, I think is a critical question. Because one of the arguments I hear in favor of branding is that a library is trying to show that when someone walks into a library they know that they are in such-and-such library system. But, if a library system finds that a very low number of patrons go to multiple branches throughout the system, then maybe this isn’t that big of a concern after all?

3) Part of a consortium?
A problem I see with a branding a library as part of a larger consortium is that there are libraries in the consortium that are actually part of another library system and aren’t branded the same. Are they branding themselves as something different? I find that they typically are. This is probably not a problem if we look into the concern above, but in our area in the bay, we do see a lot of patron crossover from nearby library systems and they all have different services available (which I think they should). My question here is, do people really care that they are in this library system or the next or do they care that they can use their library card?

4) Critical mass of libraries with the same brand or at least using the same card?
This brings me to this thought. If library systems aren’t branding themselves alike across the board, then do we have a critical mass of libraries necessary to create a brand? Brands like Starbucks work because they are so wide spread that wherever you go in the country (and the world) you can easily recognize it and know that you can get a venti mocha that will taste pretty consistent with the last place you got it. In the case of libraries, are enough libraries offering enough of the same services that what is available is easily recognizable? Probably not.

5) Same services available?
I would argue that for many library systems, offering the same services from system to system (or even branch to branch) would not be a great idea since so many communities need such different services and programs. A rural library doesn’t serve the same function as an urban library in a lot of ways and so branding them both the same by offering the same services wouldn’t work out. This is also why, when I’m overseas and visit a Kentucky Fried Chicken, the menu is slightly different than it is in the states. Sometimes, it’s better and more profitable to be different and give out what people want instead of what we want to provide.

6) Looking the same
Well, that Kentucky Fried Chicken looks the same as the ones here in the states! Once again, I would argue that this only works because there is so much crossover of customers from store to store at KFC and would refer you back to numbers 2, 3, and 4 on this list. There are enough people moving from store to store around the county, the fact that a more common or easily accessible currency is used that allows that movement (money) as compared to library cards, and that there is a critical mass of outlets offering the same or similar goods and services.

But here is where I think Branding is right. If a library system serves a small enough or similar enough community of users that they typically want or need the same services and programs etc… that there is a large enough crossover of patrons between the library system’s branches who are not also using a number of other libraries in the area or that the use of those libraries would not dilute the brand they are trying to create. And of course, that the cost of trying to rebrand every library is far lower than the benefits. I’ve only seen 2 public library systems where I would argue that this occurs.

One the other hand, sometimes I wonder if many libraries are already branded? I’ve been to many libraries around the country that are branded as community libraries. They are branded separate and distinct to the community they serve even though they are part of the same library system. Maybe building community libraries and branding them as the library that serves their community is the way to go. In which case, it is simply the library’s role to serve their community and provide what their community wants and needs. Or, maybe to REALLY stand out from the crowd you shouldn’t brand your library like every other company?

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About pcsweeney

Currently, I'm the Branch Manager of the East Palo Alto Library in California. If you find yourself to be extremely bored (and would like to be more bored) you can find all of my internet mind droppings about libraries by googling pcsweeney.
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13 Responses to Stop Branding Your Library!!

  1. bmljenny says:

    I don’t think a lot of libraries take the concept of branding quite to the level you’re talking about. I think for many of us it really translates into the realization that hey, our public image is kind of important and requires attention, because our competitors certainly do put a lot of energy into it.

  2. pcsweeney says:

    Actually, that’s a great point. My other frustration with branding, that I didn’t put here because its in my other “pro-branding” posts, is that so many libraries I have talked to about branding simply point to a logo and call it branding. And I also think you’re right because our public image is DEFINITELY important! But I’m not sure that focus needs to be on branding in the true sense of the term but simply putting our absolute best forward at all times.

  3. StevenB says:

    I think branding can be valuable so I wouldn’t make a blanket statement that libraries should stop branding. What I will say is that library branding can fail or be little more than a catch phrase or tag line that no one really believes in or puts into their daily practice. And if the brand was the work of a committee or a administrator, the frontline staff that have to really live that brand every day may have little interest. At MPOW I am leading an initiative to start with what we call an experiential brand statement. It is not a library promotion brand. Rather it is an internal brand that identifies the experience we want people to have at our library. This process involves all the staff who have something to do with any touchpoint where the public connects with the library – physical or virtual. The EBS – also known as a “way we serve statement” is a touchstone for the staff that guides their interaction with the public. See more here: http://zappified.com/wwss/wwss.pdf I believe that once all staff have a commitment to an internal service brand – then we can potentially build on that to have a brand that is an accurate and honest reflection of what we deliver as a service organization. So the bottom line for me when it comes to branding is first have the staff develop an internal brand – and passionately believe in it – and then let the external brand be an outgrowth of the internal brand. For example, if the internal brand is “We transform people” – and we all work day in and day out to make this our focus – then if we say our external brand is “The Library that Transforms You” – then I think it has a better chance of succeeding.

  4. ekgo says:

    I deeply appreciate that you’re willing to step up and say, “Hmm, wait, maybe I wasn’t right after all. Let’s think about this” and I really hope others will follow.
    I fully understand the need to be a recognizable entity to the community, to have a picture that citizens can see and associate with “MY library” (as opposed to the little-guy-reading sign for the library), to put forth an image so that the neighborhood knows who you are, what you do, and what to expect from you. In fact, I don’t only understand that concept, I think it’s a great idea!
    But you touched upon a couple of things I think are overlooked when this whole “branding” thing begins:
    1) Branding offers a homogenized image of the library system, a whole-system overview, right? There isn’t anything wrong with that, but it should not trump the personality of the individual library, and I think that happens too often. Even if a patron visits multiple branches in the system, they should be allowed to experience the unique community feeling at each branch; in fact, that may be why they use multiple branches. I worry that tends to be put aside for the sake of The Brand.
    I work outside of my own library system and my county’s library district is very different from the district in which I work. At work, I stay at my branch because it’s the one I’m most comfortable with. At home, I prefer to visit several different branches, depending on my mood and my need. I go to the one down the street most often because it is convenient. However, it is not “helpful”; I play librarian there if I need anything. If I want any type of help, I go to the one in the next town over. If I want study space, I go to the new one down the interstate. If I want to be in an environment that speaks to learning, art, culture, diversity, etc, I go to the old downtown library. They each have a different feel and a different purpose and I appreciate that. I would be very sad if they all became a bunch of Starbucks-type branches where everything felt the same in order to match the overarching image. I imagine there are other patrons and librarians who would feel that way, too.

    2) The goal. I’m not entirely convinced libraries have a goal when branding themselves. I am sure there are some, as you mentioned, that do it beautifully, but for the most part, I think we tend to jump on a bandwagon without knowing the destination. I would have a much easier time buying into the idea of a brand if I understood what it was meant to achieve and felt it was helping not only the overall system but each individual library, as well, and so far, I’m not convinced.

    I don’t think that any branding efforts made by any library should be trashed. I think the general image libraries have worked to create can be built upon, strengthened and used. But I also don’t think libraries need to get all gung-ho about creating a brand in order to be recognized and understood. I think our actions and our presence, as representatives of the library, often do that for us.

    Thank you for posting your thoughts. It has been wonderful to see something I’ve been wondering about addressed from the other side.

  5. Joe Grobelny says:

    many libraries have the most boring brands in the world because they “brand” like walmart. i wish they’d step up their game if they do go the branding route.

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  7. Amber says:

    I think Steven makes a very valuable point–branding is incredibly important to an organization internally. It gives us all a focus and a sense of belonging to the same tribe. I also strongly believe that we need to compete not only with libraries as a brand but with our other “competitors” like bookstores and entertainment venues. Developing a solid brand throughout your organization is a way to differentiate yourself beyond just your library doors but within the community.

    I also believe that having a strong brand within the community helps us in our advocacy efforts. If we are all telling the same story and everyone has the same brand experience (or some version of it) then our efforts are solidified. We are stronger when working together and a strong brand should be seen as a valuable tool for library advocacy.

  8. Hrm, I gotta respectfully disagree here. I don’t think it needs to be done the exact same way at every library, and maybe some libraries don’t need any branding at all, but I’ve seen plenty of half-assed branding and marketing, libraries who have done well and made improvements, and libraries who do it well. Examples where I know branding can be effective and meets a need:
    1. I worked at San Jose Public, where there are a gazillion branches that in some cases are 10 minutes apart from each other. Patrons easily go from library to library often, so having libraries that are laid out similarly, use social media and the web consistently, etc, works very well.
    2. I now work at Santa Clara Co Library, where the libraries are much farther apart and offer many of the same services but not all. It’s a bit more confusing for patrons to figure out which library is part of our system (e.g. Santa Clara City Library is not). Branding is effective in identifying for patrons how to use our hold system, our mobile app, catalog, and policies and distinguishes us from the numerous library systems in the Bay Area.

    Other ways branding can be effective: getting terminology right: reflecting what patrons use, not what libraries use, involving the community and Friends groups.

    And my personal favorite: branding can reduce clutter, create organization, and make it easier for patrons to identify and use the library. For a profession that prides itself on organization, most libraries I visit tend to have a lot of non-intuitive ways of “helping” patrons find what they need. I have a theory about why we do that, but it’s another story.

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  10. Oleg K. says:

    I think that library staff should do a good job. Period. Be nice to people. Solve their problems. Do a lava job with ALL the services offered. And by doing a good job, I also mean make beautiful promotional material for programs, rock the logo where possible, and represent for the library in the community.

    That is what creates a library’s brand, not a thousand meetings, new logos, or only pink flyers. Do an excellent job at work and, guess what, your library’s brand will be “The library that does an excellent job”.

    Of course, any “bad-job” library can hire a design firm and get a makeover. Then they’ll be like Scientology — splendiferous marketing materials and neat buildings used to advertise some craaazy stuff.

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  12. grafedie says:

    Branding is important, even if you are part of a larger library system, you are still a neighborhood entity. It gives you presence within your community. People should be able to see a flyer, or ad and know without even reading it, that it is a Library program. Lets face it, Libraries are struggling to stay open due to slashed budgets. Customer Service, like Oleg K says, is primo,it should be our first priority and Circulation numbers are our tally sheet that justifies our existence. No circ,no budget,no library.

  13. ivan says:

    Patrons don’t care what library system they are using, only that they are in a library. Although services vary, they expect some basic things to be the same. Maybe the only brand we should promote as a common denominator is the Library. In the Bay Area, a library card to rule them all, would make a lot of sense, imho.

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